top of page
  • Writer's pictureAisha

Assemblies in Georgian Bath

Hello darlings!


It was a very sad sight to see the Bath Fashion Museum close last year. It's been based in the Assembly Rooms since 1963, and there's no confirmed date as to when it will re-open in its new location. But fortunately just before it closed I managed to squeeze in a visit and bought the pamphlet for the history of the Assembly Rooms and Fashion Museum, so I thought I'd condense some of these findings into a blog post!


Some of the info in here would be really helpful for anyone writing something set in Georgian Bath, or keep reading if you're just interested in what life was like in the Georgian period!


[If the pictures do not have a source attached, they're mine- feel free to share them wherever you'd like.]


What was an assembly?


Assemblies in the Georgian period were where polite society (read as: wealthy people) met, danced, played cards and drank tea. Before assemblies, these pursuits were carried out separately and in sequence, so assemblies brought all of them together under one roof.


The New (or 'Upper') Assembly Rooms


Bath in the 18th century underwent rapid growth in popularity, in part thanks to Beau Nash, who we'll talk about later!


There were two assembly rooms in the 1760s; Harrison’s (later Simpson’s, also called the 'lower' assembly rooms) and Lindsay’s (later Wilshire’s). Harrison's was built under the encouragement of Beau Nash and it stood in what is now known as the Parade Gardens. It was partially destroyed by a fire in 1820, rebuilt, and then finally demolished in 1933 in order to widen the road.


Lidsay's was built by John Wood the elder, but unfortunately I can't find where it was or whether the building still survives; if anyone knows please do inform me.


However, by the mid-18th century both of these buildings were considered old-fashioned, too small for the fast-growing population and quite far from the fashionable upper town. Hence, new assembly rooms needed to be built.


Many designs were proposed. John Wood (the younger) suggested combining a tavern and coffee house with the public rooms, but this was rejected as it was thought too improper. Robert Adam also produced a design that was rejected as it was too expensive.


John Wood won the final bid to make the new assembly rooms. To raise the money for these new rooms, people invested in a 'tontine' subscription. Essentially, this meant the last person surviving who put shares in inherits all. It's such a Georgian thing, they loved to gamble, another thing which we'll touch on later.


The subscription opened in November 1768 and by April 1769, £14,000 had been raised by 53 individuals. The total cost was £20,000, at that point the biggest investment in a single building in Bath. The foundation stone was laid on the 26th of May 1769 and fitting out the interior finished in 1771.


The opening night was on the 30th September 1771. They christened the building with a Ridotto (a combined dance and concert). Captain William Wade was the Master of Ceremonies, Beau having retired from the position by this time. Admittance was one Guinea for a gentleman and seven shillings for a lady. Three complimentary tickets were sent to Gainsborough, the painter, probably as a thanks for the portrait he had painted of Wade.


Exterior


Although the inside is incredibly grand, the exterior is actually quite plain, nothing like Robert Adam's plan!


Despite the plain exterior, these new assembly rooms were magnificent. They were situated in the fashionable part of town which meant no more trekking across the whole of Bath, and not only that, they were also were made to the latest tastes.


The main entrance sat under a Doric portico (a columned overhang), surrounded on either side by the Ball Room and Tea Room.


This entrance was used by people who arrived on foot or by sedan chair- you'll definitely have seen one of these before, but you may need a reminder with just the name!


Doing a google to find that image, there's actually loads of interesting history involving the sedan chair so let me know if you want a post about that in the future! If you want to see a sedan chair in person, I'm pretty sure there's one permanently on display in front of the Jane Austen Museum in Bath.


Those who came by carriage entered through the north-west or south-west doors.


Interior

The interior was U-shaped, with lots of rooms and compartments so all of the fashionable pursuits (dancing, cards, tea drinking, etc.) could take place all at the same time, but in their own enclosed space. There were also connecting doors and hallways so it was easy to navigate all of these separate compartments, despite there being so many of them.


The Ball Room:

You'll notice the fireplaces- if you've ever danced, you'll know that you don't need any more heat once you've started dancing! These fireplaces provided initial heat when first stepping into the room, but were allowed to die down once the dancing was underway. The heat then rose up to the high ceiling and was absorbed by the windows.

The Ball Rooms ceilings and upper walls are heavily decorated, but the lower walls are quite bare. They were usually covered by rows of benches for people resting between dances or simply observing the dance floor.

The Ball Room could have as many as 800 dancers at a time!


The orchestra would have been situated in the first floor gallery.


The Octagon (or Card Room):

This space was used as a card room until the popularity of cards necessitated a new room dedicated to its purpose.


The Georgians were super into gambling, most often in the form of card games. Men like Beau Nash made their fortune gambling; doctors would prescribe it as a form of distraction. It was just as popular among women too, and was deemed an acceptable pastime for fashionable ladies.


As with everything popular, eventually it became distasteful and laws were passed in 1739 and 1745 to ban Faro, Basset, Hazard, Ace of Hearts and Even-Odd. These laws ruined many professional gamblers.

The mirrors in this room are in the Girandole style, and back in the Georgian period they would have been furnished with candles too to provide more light.


Tea Room:


I once danced in the Tea Room with the JA dancers, but during the Georgian period it was primarily used for refreshments and concerts.

Me (dancing!) in the Tea Room with the Jane Austen Dancers.

Events


Events usually had quite a regimented structure; for example, on the opening night the doors opened at seven, the side boards (food) were brought out at nine and the event ended at midnight.


Events usually started at six or seven, even during the winter months, so good lighting was important. Keeping chandeliers and candles lit was an expensive and time-consuming business, and that's if the chandeliers stayed intact! In this pamphlet it mentions once, during a dance, one of the chandelier arms fell onto the dance floor, only narrowly missing Gainsborough. What a ripe opportunity for (near) disaster in a period novel!

You can only imagine one of them landing on your head!


Subscriptions:


Subscriptions meant that people living in Bath or visiting for a season could pay a lump sum upfront to attend every event held in the new assembly rooms. Without a subscription, events would cost more on an individual basis.


There was a Dress Ball every Monday, which cost one Guinea for the season (three tickets).


Dress Balls started at six. Between six and eight minuets took place, a stately dance performed by only couples. More energetic (or 'country') dances took place between eight and nine. These dances required more free dress- you couldn't dance them in a hoop- so if you needed to change you could do so in an apartment with assistance from servants. At nine, refreshments were served in the Tea Room, after which the dancing continued until eleven, which is when the ball ended.


Concerts were held on Wednesdays, costing one Guinea for a man and half a Guinea for a woman.


They were first hosted by Thomas Linley, who had two daughters that were very talented singers and sang in his concerts from a young age. However, in 1772, Elizabeth caused a scandal by eloping with a playwright.


He was succeeded by Venanzio Rauzzini in 1777.


A Cotillion Ball (country dancing) was held on Thursdays. A gentleman’s subscription was half a Guinea per ticket, their partners only costing five shillings.


There didn't need to be an event to enter the rooms, either. They were open every day for socialising or playing cards, with a subscription of ten shillings for men and five for ladies.


'Beau' Nash


Richard, or 'Beau', Nash is quite instrumental when talking about Bath during the Georgian period.

He arrived in Bath in around 1703 at the age of 28, and by 1706 had become the Master of Ceremonies, a very prestigious position. He laid down 'Rules', codes of conduct, to ensure that polite society stayed that way.


These Rules included things like not wearing swords (as it only encouraged duelling), no hard drinking and even a dress code so those less fashionably minded could feel comfortable attending events.


Thanks to Beau making Bath a fashionable city and one where only polite society congregated, the population rose from 3,000 in 1700 to 35,000 a century later. Property developer Ralph Allen and architect John Wood (the elder) built the city to accommodate this influx of people, and most of what you see today was built by them.


Beau made his fortune through gambling and was eventually ruined by the laws I mentioned earlier that banned most card games.


After the Georgian Period


Bath declined in popularity during the 19th century. Now it was the time of seaside resorts like Brighton and the birth of widespread European travelling. New leases of life were attempted to revive the assembly rooms; they were redecorated in a Victorian style, the bare lower walls covered in wallpaper and furniture replaced.


Despite the declining tourism, concerts remained popular and the assembly rooms were visited by Johann Strauss and Franz Liszt. Public readings also took place, most notably by Charles Dickens.

‘There was music– not of the quadrille band, for it had not yet commenced; but the music of soft tiny footsteps, with now and then a clear merry laugh– low and gentle, but very pleasant to hear in a female voice, whether in Bath or elsewhere.’ -The Pickwick Papers, Charles Dickens

The Ballroom became a cinema during the Great War. The assembly rooms were subject to bombings in 1942 and the subsequent fire gave the stonework a pinkish hue. Due to the lack of documentation of the previous colour scheme, the colour palate of the rooms is now based off of these pink and brown colours.


The rooms were restored to their original glory thanks to many generous donations over the years, from the 1930s (they restored them before the bomb hit, unfortunately) to the 70s to the present day. It truly is a beautiful building, well worth a visit when it re-opens, even without the costume museum.

~

Wouldn't you just love to take part in an assembly during the Georgian period? I, for one, would just like to dance in a ballroom lit only by candlelight, but with safety rules as they are today I doubt that's ever going to happen! Oh well, one can dream.


Until next time,

Aisha x


Source: The Assembly Rooms Bath, The Authorised Guide published by Heritage Services division of Bath & North East Somerset Council in association with the National Trust.


Further reading:

26 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Comments


bottom of page